Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Restricting Free Speech to Protect Free Speech?

There was an interesting editorial in yesterday's LA Times by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Daniel Huff called, "It's time to fight back against death threats by Islamic extremists." The authors call for new legislation similar to that passed to deter intimidation tactics used by anti-abortion protesters.
It's time for free-speech advocates to take a page from the abortion rights movement's playbook.  ... they lobbied for a federal law making it a crime to threaten people exercising reproductive rights and permitting victims to sue for damages. ... A federal law would do two things. First, it would deter violent tactics, by focusing national attention on the problem and invoking the formidable enforcement apparatus of the federal government. Second, its civil damages provision would empower victims of intimidation to act as private attorneys general to defend their rights.
Although I strongly sympathize with the intent, I'm highly skeptical of remedies that involve protecting free speech by passing more laws. The way to defend free speech against Islamic extremism is to defy intimidation by collectively refusing to pander to delicate Islamic sensibilities. Terroristic threats should be taken seriously, the perpetrators tracked down and prosecuted. But passing a new law that allows implied threats to be subject to preset legal damages -- as the authors advocate -- is a bad idea that will likely lead to unintended consequences. It would almost certainly result in a stifling of certain forms of political speech, based on court interpretations of what exactly constitutes some sort of threat. Protecting free speech by giving courts a new weapon to restrict it is a really bad idea.

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